Harvard Heart Letter

Creating order from chaos: Taming atrial fibrillation

Treatment focuses on controlling the heart's rate and rhythm and preventing stroke.

Imagine an orchestra directed by many conductors, all with different scores. Each musician follows whichever conductor and score he or she chooses, and switches when the mood strikes. The result would be noise, not music. That's what happens with atrial fibrillation. Instead of getting a single "beat now" signal from the heart's natural pacemaker every second or so, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) get bombarded by many signals. The result is a chaotic heart rhythm that can interfere with daily life and increases the chances of having a stroke.

Atrial fibrillation isn't a one-size-fits-all condition. It's always there for some people and comes and goes in others. It causes symptoms in some people; others don't feel a thing.

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